Classical CD Reviews
“Concerti for Strings with Percussion Orchestra” = Works of SEKHON, SMITH, LIPTAK, TIMPSON & ADAMS – Soloists/McCormick Percussion Group – Novello Records “Magic Mirror: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Vol. 2” by MARTY REGAN – Soloists – Navona Records
Published on December 6, 2012
“Concerti for Strings with Percussion Orchestra” = BALJINDER SEKHON: Lou; STUART SAUNDERS SMITH: Nightshade; DAVID LIPTAK: Concerto for Viola and Percussion; MICHAEL SIDNEY TIMPSON: DongXidongXi, Concerto for Zheng and Percussion Orchestra; DANIEL ADAMS: Camouflage for Contrabass and Percussion Trio – Scott Kluksdahl, cello/ Carolyn Stuart, violin/ John Grahm, viola/ Haiqiong Deng, zheng/ Dee Moses, contrabass/ McCormick Percussion Group – Rovello Records RR7820, 59:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
“Magic Mirror: Selected Works for Japanese Instruments, Vol. 2” = MARTY REGAN: flamefox, for shakuhachi quartet; dragoneyes, for shakuhachi, shamisen, and 21-string koto; In the Night Sky, for shakuhachi, 21-string koto, and percussion; Magic Mirror, for shamisen, hichiriki, ryūteki, shō, shinobue, and shakuhachi; Voyage, for shakuhachi and string quartet; Devil’s Bridge, for shamisen and biwa – Navona Records NV5876, 69:00 [Distr. by Naxos] ***1/2:
This is the second album from Robert McCormick that I’ve heard, the first featuring him as percussionist along with his wife, flutist Kim McCormick. The combination of flute and percussion seemed unlikely enough, though the resulting program certainly had its interests. Well, pitting a single string instrument against a percussion ensemble seems equally unlikely, but again, the results are often interesting, even striking.
You might guess immediately to whom Baljinder Sekhon’s Lou refers. True to its namesake, the piece employs the kind of found objects that Lou Harrison fitted out his works with: brake drums, flower pots, coffee cans, that sort of thing. Lou was composed to appear on a program featuring two Harrison pieces and must have seemed a fitting tribute. It’s rhythmically alive, filled with jazzy syncopations and a dizzying array of sounds from the strange battery that Sekhon calls for. Meanwhile, the cellist is required to strum and pluck away at the instrument in such a way that it “is treated more like a guitar for much of this piece.” So that the cello can hold its own against the often riotous backdrop, it has been amplified. Along with Michael Timpson’s DongXidongXi, this is my favorite work on the program.
I like that Timpson work for some of the same reasons: it’s lively and fun, neither composer taking themselves too seriously. The titles of the movements let you know that right away—“Timpson-Timphony,” “Centerpiece: Drum on Things/Things on Drum,” “Finale: After School Rhythmical.” Timpson explains that the title of the work is a play on Chinese words and can be roughly translated as “East/West Things.” The work is scored for the zheng (a large Chinese string instrument akin to the zither) and an ensemble of twelve timpani “along with their sibling extensions, the roto-toms.” Things literally show up in the middle movement since “the timpani are used as amplifiers for various instruments placed on top of them.” More multilingual punning in the case of the movement title “Drum on Things/Things on Drum” (“Taiko ni Koto/Koto ni Taiko”): “the word Koto in Japanese, by sound, means both ‘thing’ and ‘zither’. . . .” Throughout the piece the zheng is treated percussively by Timpson, strummed and banged on in such a way that it makes itself heard above the racket of the timpani and roto-toms. The last movement is the liveliest and most enjoyable, being a tribute to Timpson’s years of playing in school bands. Its pop-flavored inflections are courtesy Timpson’s interest in Korean pop music.
Of the other works on the program, I’m also partial to Camouflage for Contrabass and Percussion Trio. The contrast between the lumbering, sometimes slumbering contrabass and the puckish percussion trio makes for entertaining listening, though there are a couple of patches that just seem like repetitious noisemaking. But that’s a pitfall most of the composers on this disc aren’t able to skirt. However, the only piece that really doesn’t work for me is the brief Nightshade. It’s a bit glum and something of a downer, which certainly can’t be said of the other works on offer here.
Robert McCormick, professor of music at the University of South Florida, conducts with obvious relish and affection and appears as one of the two percussionists in Nightshade. The soloists he works with do all that the composers ask of them, which is often quite demanding. Ravello supplies a rather close recording but fortunately without spotlighting the solo instruments and without the kind of dryness a studio would impose—the recording was made at Springs Theatre in Tampa, a venue that manages to make those transients really sparkle. Altogether an enjoyable experience.
Magic Mirror has even more of that kind of East-meets-West synergy that informs the works by Sekhon and Timpson. In fact, except for the appearance of the string quartet in Voyage, all of the instruments employed are traditional instruments associated with gagaku, Japanese classical music. Composer Marty Regan, who has a B.A. in East Asian studies as well as a Ph.D. in music, continued his composition studies in Japan, where he also took lessons on traditional Japanese instruments. He’s affiliated with AURA-J, “one of Japan’s premiere performance ensembles of contemporary-traditional Japanese music.”
I took Dr. Regan up on his suggestion to consult http://jtrad.columbia.jp/eng/, a website devoted to traditional Japanese music, where I was able to read about and see illustrations of the various instruments featured on this album. The shakuhaci is a bamboo flute played recorder fashion. A quartet of these instruments is a slightly startling experience, especially if you have the volume turned up. (This is another closely-miked, high-level recording, so be forewarned.) The hichiriki is similar in shape but produces a somewhat nasal sound, while the shakuhachi is a bit more ethereal. The shinobue is also a bamboo flute but this one’s a transverse flute; its cousin the ryūteki is a double-reed transverse flute. The koto is probably the most familiar Japanese instrument; like the Chinese zheng, it’s similar to a zither and has an even more zithery sound. Both the shamisen and biwa are stringed instruments, the shamisen looking something like a square-bodied banjo and having a jangly tinny sort of sound, while the biwa looks and sounds something like a mandolin. The strangely shaped shō is supposed to resemble a phoenix in flight and sounds surprisingly like a harmonica.
While all of these pieces sound like gagaku, obviously the string quartet in Voyage introduces Western musical sounds into the mix. What’s more, the quartet plays a melody that’s warmly Romantic in the fashion of Puccini’s pretty little Crisantemi for string quartet. About midway through, the shakuhaci enters solo and plays a melody very much in the gaguku vein, but then the quartet returns, and the Japanese flute picks up the quartet melody. Voyage is lovely, a refreshing change of pace, and injects some needed variety into this program.
Elsewhere in the program, though the Japanese instruments play modal melodies that sound like traditional Japanese music, Western musical influences—such as counterpoint, microtonal slides, jazzy syncopations, and polyrhythms—intrude on the music-making in interesting and piquant ways. If this program is slightly less appealing than that of the McCormick Percussion Group, that’s only because it lacks the variety that several composers with very different approaches afford. Nonetheless, I’m happy to have made the acquaintance of Marty Regan and his music; I recommend this disc to those with a taste for the exotic and the out-of-the-way.